FC Barcelona faced SL Benfica twice in the past at its fortress Estádio da Luz during the UEFA Champions League. On December 9, 1991, Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team played out a 0-0 draw at the stadium. In the 2005-06 season, Frank Rijkaard’s team came away with a goal-less draw as well. Victories at the Camp Nou saw FC Barcelona advance on each occasion. Nevertheless, Tito Vilanova’s Champions League group-stage opponent boasts plenty of ability and enough talent to end the debutante coach’s seven-game winning streak.
Like Barcelona, Benfica is also undefeated in its domestic competition. Coach Jorge Jesus’ side sits level with FC Porto on points with one goal separating the two sides. The club suffered two draws in the Liga Sagres and a scoreless draw on Champions League match day one at Celtic FC.
A point of interest for the Catalans is the presence of striker Nolito, who passed through Barça B and earned a few appearances on the first team en route to the Portuguese capital. The La Masia product boasts plenty of speed and muscle to get the ball to the touch line and cause loads of problems for the often-questionable Barcelona defense. Read more about Nolito in our Gracies Pep series here.
“It’s true I am going to play against Barcelona. It’s nice to face my old club, but now I am on the other side,” Nolito said in press conference Monday. The Spanish international said despite the odds, “In football, anything is possible. They have excellent players … We will have to run a lot to win.”
For if football teaches us anything, it’s that experience goes a long way. And the Portuguese side boasts plenty of it in the form of players who know first-hand how FC Barcelona operates on the pitch.
Benfica’s creative brain and number 10 Pablo Aimar spent six seasons with Valencia CF, playing alongside David Villa. Aimar also faced Barcelona while with Zaragoza for two seasons. The Argentine international returned from injury this week and will likely sit in the middle of the park, spraying passes out to his two strikers or two attacking midfielders.
Ezequiel Garay, another Argentine with La Liga experience, formed part of the Real Madrid defensive line that helped defeat Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final of 2011 and will likely feature for Benfica.
Despite the experience among the squad, the Lisbon side is without its captain and Brazilian international Luisão after an unfortunate incident between him and a referee during the preseason. The specialist defender is currently serving a ban until November after FIFA decided his actions merited suspension from any football related events for three months. Paraguayan striker Óscar Cardozo must also sit this one out after picking up a thigh strain at the weekend.
Brazilian striker Lima, who scored a brace in the league over the weekend, will look to link up with midfielders Nemanja Matić and Enzo Pérez to cause as many problems as possible for the Barcelona back line and Víctor Valdés.
Probable starting XI (4-1-3-2): Artur; Pereira, Vitor, Garay, Melgarejo; Matić; Pérez, Aimar, Nolito; Lima; Rodrigo
Barça touched down in Lisbon around midday Monday after a 90-minute flight from the Catalan capital. The team currently sits top of the league and top of its CL group, but if there are questions to be asked of the Catalan side, Javier Mascherano thinks Benfica could very well have some answers.
“I know Benfica’s players very well,” the converted center back said. “They have very good Argentine players and not just that. I am also aware it’s hard to play here and achieve a good result. They have a very good following who support them very much. We must respect them.”
Benfica, who will likely play on the break, will seek to take advantage of any lapse in concentration from the Barcelona back line. Despite the bolstering of the defense with new signings Alex Song and Jordi Alba, and recent recoveries in the form of Adriano and Carles Puyol, Barcelona has looked somewhat fragile at the back.
“The reality is we don’t change our game plan regardless of what stadium we’re playing in,” Mascherano said. “We understand the risk we run and against fast opponents, we have to have a lot of concentration in order not to make mistakes.”
Boss Vilanova has pulled off some sensational victories in his short spell at the helm, with 3-2 victories against Spartak Moscow and Sevilla being the most recent heart-stoppers. While Vilanova’s starting line ups have been either somewhat mysterious at times or understandable given squad fitness, the coach’s brilliant substitutions have been his saving grace on several occasions.
It remains to be seen if any of the three recently recovered Barcelona players will be given a solid 90 minutes this weekend. Andres Iniesta may be spared for this weekend’s El Clásico against Real Madrid. The squad is certainly without the services of Gerard Piqué (ankle) and Thiago Alcântara (knee).
The options in attack remain interesting, with Cesc Fàbregas having a superb outing at the weekend against Sevilla and David Villa helping to pull the match out of the fire in extra time. The jury is still out on whether or not this performance was something of a lark as it was Fàbregas’ first time scoring La Liga since January 8. Alexis Sanchez also has some explaining to do and could get the nod from Vilanova yet again, despite his inconsistent form.
Look for Cristian Tello and Lionel Messi to be game changers.
Probable starting XI (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets , Xavi, Fàbregas; Alexis, Messi, Pedro
Prediction: Fortunately for the blaugrana, a lack of defensive acquisitions in the transfer market leaves Benfica a little slim at the back and a quick set of substitutions by Vilanova could yet again prove the deciding factor in this contest.
SL Benfica 1-3 FC Barcelona
Image: Miguel Ruiz/ FCB